Picture this. I’m thirteen years old and I’m the reason why my clients, Mike and Ashley; the latest gay couple to arrive in the neighbourhood, are in love with their new home. The joy (reflected clearly by their mood charts) reinstate that I was right to back the kitchen onto the garden and choose wood panelling over the beige wallpaper. Unfortunately, due to the fact that I’d ‘accidently’ removed the ladder from their swimming pool during some routine building maintenance, Mike drowned during a morning workout. Shortly after his passing, give or take five minutes, I scheduled a replacement for Ashley by perfectly pairing him with my new creation – Luke. Just another day in the life of ‘The Sims’.
Gaming has become ubiquitous and although some parents have a right to be concerned about the negative effects gaming can have on young minds, I had some of the best years of my life playing these games. Although drowning Mike purposely could be seen as extremely concerning, you wouldn’t believe the amount of people I’ve met who reference the same behaviours during a casual game of ‘The Sims’. It was actually relatively “normal” to drown or kill off unwanted members of your home grown society and remove the doors in the buying mode so your Sims were left in a room with four walls and no escape. I know, it sounds completely off the wall, which it undoubtedly was, nevertheless – it was SO entertaining, even more addictive and I love it as much today as I did back then.
With that said, I do realise the impact of playing such games whilst growing up but I would also be quick to argue that for me, it wasn’t necessarily a negative one. OK, so even though I indulged in these strange/slightly evil behaviours, it was all very tongue in cheek and never was I stuck in the corner of a blackened bedroom staring into my game plotting, planning and calculating murders to satisfy my evil tendencies, mwahahaha. No. It was never that. Yes, at one point I was absolutely glued, fully immersing myself in a world stealing cars, murdering prostitutes and drowning Sims – but as outrageous as that sounds – I had positively de-stressed myself by the time I was done.
As the years went on, my workload increased and the stresses of life began to rise. Schoolwork was taking over and getting into university became my main priority, so, naturally my gaming hours slowly decreased. Until, fast forward to the end of last year, when I thought to myself – I’m stressed and I just want to play some Grand Theft Auto. What I hadn’t fully appreciated was that, during my gaming years, those games granted me more than just a bit of fun. Playing games requires effort and energy and these were choices I made in order to spend quality time with myself. I could focus on tasks and challenges without any external pressures. If I lost, I’d start again. I wouldn’t give up until I completed what I had started, I could release my anger; create situations, environments and worlds inside worlds. I could open a theme park and be the visitor, manager or the cleaner. I actually enjoyed clearing up visitors puke and found it quite relaxing when the park wasn’t so busy. More than anything, these games became a tool in which could relieve my stress and following an anxiety related breakdown last year, I reintroduced the XBOX and jumped straight into gaming again.
Formal research surrounding game playing has primarily focused on the negative aspects such as addiction and violence but what’s to be said for the positive psychological effects? Well, you may be pleased to learn that playing your games console can actually reduce the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. According to research undertaken by the virtual reality medical institute in a paper entitled the effectiveness of casual video games in improving mood and decreasing stress, we now have some evidence that suggests playing games has a positive impact on our lives. Apparently, casual game play is capable of altering the central nervous systems in ways that are consistent with decreased stress and improved mood.
Although I will admit there’s nothing I can’t stand more than seeing the brightly lit faces of children completely immersed in iPad’s, phones and games consoles alike and I still strongly believe whole heartedly that immersive, imaginative play is by far the best type of interaction for children – I can also fully appreciate (in moderation) the positive side of gaming.
With more research like this coming to the forefront and collaborations between scientists and game developers becoming increasingly popular, I’m excited by the science and psychology behind gaming. As I myself have reaped the benefits from playing games and fully recognise how good it can be for shifting my anxiety, I’m rejoicing at the fact that its being researched further. A recent study from Michegan State University showed anxious college students were able to reduce their anxiety by playing a game specifically created to distract the mind causing the player to focus on identifying shapes within shapes. Another game designer and TED speaker ,Jane Mcgonigal, created a game that promises to build up your real-life resilience, strengthen you emotional and physical side by undertaking daily tasks on her app ‘Superbetter’. You can watch her incredibly inspiring Ted Talk here. Although we are seeing an increase in game-focused studies and the positive effects they pose on gamers from individuals and the many players of such games, ‘brain training’ apps still remain highly controversial, as they offer no independent scientific proof that they help reduce mental illnesses such as anxiety.
With the above considered, I do think it’s important to remember here that if picking up your games console makes you happy, it’s definitely something you should implement in your life as an aid to combatting stress. If it’s too hard to get to the gym, meet a friend or pick up the phone, find a moment for yourself and don’t feel guilty about a little harmless gameplay. If it works, it works. There’s no harm in finding your inner child and indulging in a bit of gaming. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a medieval mission to complete and a pirate ship to attend to. Over and out.